Back in 1967, Aretha Franklin won the respect of the public and press, not to mention her musical peers, who crowned her Queen of Soul or Lady Soul. As disco began to supplant soul in the mid-seventies, two women each sought to become successor to Aretha’s throne: glorious Gloria Gaynor and diva-esque Donna Summer. The former got there first, but, as it turned out, only kept the seat warm for Summer, who, in sheer terms of hits, musical creativity, and lasting influence, emerged on top.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston Massachusetts, Donna Summer honed her singing at church, then later ‘flirted’ with rock music. Hoping to pursue a singing career, she left for Munich in the late ’60s and took the lead in the German version of the counter-culture rock musical, Hair. A few years later, she moved to Austria where she was briefly married to Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, whose name she kept after their divorce, and tweaked for posterity, replacing the ‘o’ for a ‘u’. In 1973, her career started to take off once she’d hooked up with German-based composers-producers, Italian Giorgio Moroder and Englishman Pete Bellotte, at their MusicLand Studios in Munich. The trio’s collaboration would last seven years, resulting in groundbreaking music that would dominate the dance floors throughout the second half of the disco decade.
Initially Summer’s idea, “Love To Love You“—as it was originally titled—was inspired by the 1969 Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin French hit, “Je t’aime… moi non plus“. The extremely sensual and sexual—for the time —French original was loosely ‘translated’ and transformed into an English slow-pulsing near-erotic dance floor favorite in the summer of 1975. Bellotte and Moroder cleverly borrowed a page or two from the Maestro of Sensuality, aka The Icon of Love, Mr. Barry White, from his 1973 debut I’ve Got So Much To Give [20th Century T-407]. The original 3-minute European single [on Groovy] came to the attention of Los Angeles-based Casablanca Records’ head honcho Neil Bogart. Rumor has it he kept playing it over and over at a wild private party, later convincing Giorgio to extend it substantially and citing Iron Butterfly’s landmark 1968 acid rock hit “In-A-Gotta-Da-Vida” as a model. The subsequent 17-minute full-side version sealed the deal with Casablanca, which provided North American distribution via its Munich-based Oasis label. Love To Love You Baby and its title track represent the first and one of the finest masterpieces of Eurodisco ever produced. The extended (album) version makes all the difference between a good song and a great one. It was also the first disco song to go over the 10-minute mark and take up an entire LP side. It became the basis for how several Eurodisco artists and producers would ‘construct’ and ‘de-construct’ their own multi-layered compositions. An absolute must for music and sound quality in any serious record collection. If you limit yourself to only one Donna Summer release (which you should not), then make it this one.
Now that the ‘dream team’ hit gold, they more or less repeated the winning formula for the next release, A Love Trilogy in March 1976. This third studio album (Summer’s first was the non-disco Lady of the Night, released only in Europe) introduced hints at the concept album as chosen model. The main disco track, “Try Me I Know We can Make It” is an uninterrupted suite of four acts. Compared to “Love To Love You Baby”, the tempo is quite faster (nearly 30 BPM higher) and includes more synthesizer, signs of Giorgio’s growing compositional influence. That said, we’re still in Eurodisco territory rather than electro-disco. Occupying the entire first side, the song clocks in close to 18 minutes long, just over a minute longer than “Love to Love You Baby”. Musically, it’s another Eurodisco masterpiece, and while not as overtly sensual or having the same ‘feel’ as “Love To Love You Baby”, many DJs and disco fans place it near or at the top of Summer’s catalogue. Side two comprises another fine trio of unmixed disco songs, including opener “Prelude to Love“, which acts as the intro to a superb cover of Barry Manilow’s 1973 ballad “Could It Be Magic“. The song succeeded as a second disco single from the LP. Finally, “Wasted“, and the closer “Come With Me“, are what I call ‘sleeper’ tracks in that they are excellent and good, respectively, but didn’t get the same radio push as the more popular tracks.
In October, 1976, Four Seasons of Love—the first release on the new U.S. label—made full use of the concept album format. Just as Vivaldi presented the baroque violin concerto Le quattro stagioni (the four seasons) way back in 1723, here Bellotte and Moroder bring Vivaldi to the ever evolving disco canvas. The album opens with “Spring Affair“, which segues perfectly into “Summer Fever“. Flipping album sides, the seasonal theme continues with the musically original “Autumn Changes” which, through blowing wind, segues into the ballad single “Winter Melody“. Finally, coming full circle, we segue into a reprise of “Spring Affair”, thus forming a perpetual renewable life cycle. There are no ‘bad seasons’ but Side A showcases the stronger material. The music and resulting ambiance are distinct from what the trio had done before and also from other prior disco releases. Although I don’t consider this LP as essential or musically outstanding as the previous two, I can still heartily recommend it as an excellent disco and Donna Summer record and also for its historical significance as being the first disco concept album.
Reverting back, in May 1977, to A Love Trilogy’s LP format consisting of four tracks mixed on Side A and four unmixed on Side B, the album I Remember Yesterday was another concept album. The first side is a triptych suite consisting of “I Remember Yesterday“, “Love’s Unkind“, and “Back in Love Again“, three parts representing the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, respectively, with the reprise of the title track elegantly wrapping things up. Donna’s dynamic singing and scatting accompanied by Thor Baldursson’s superb big band arrangements allow her ample room to ‘free’ herself from the previous ‘sex object’ confines she felt so ill at ease with.
The album’s last song, “I Feel Love“, is, without doubt, one of the most influential songs of the ‘70s and is rightfully considered to represent the birth of the subgenre called electro-disco that would heavily influence synthpop, EDM, Hi-NRG, house, techno, tech house, trance, and all things electronica in the following decades. Combining the ‘colder’ sounds of synthesizers and sequencers with Summer’s warmer vocal ones created a kind of paradox within the song structure, and even the discothèque, where the music evoked a sort of robotic cyber-sex atmosphere. By borrowing, altering, and speeding up Stevie Wonder’s intro to “I Wish” from his 1976 double LP Songs In The Key Of Life, Giorgio tempered the organic funk and increased the more sterile 8-note sequencer pattern. When it came time for “I Feel Love”—astonishingly considered a ‘filler’ at first—he repeated the same recipe as others had done with Diana Ross’s 1976 “Love Hangover” during the long funky riff break, T-Connection’s 1977 12-inch single intro to “Do What You Wanna Do“, and Celi Bee & The Buzzy Bunch’s “Superman”. I strongly recommend getting the one-sided 12-inch single that came out shortly afterwards, which not only has the superior groove spacing but also happens to be an extended (8-minute) version comprising a second longer break that does not exist on the original LP cut.
Read Part 2 here
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Reference List (singles, albums, and labels):
- “Je t’aime… moi non plus” [Fontana MF 260 241]
- I’ve Got So Much To Give [20th Century T-407]
- “In-A-Gotta-Da-Vida” [Atco SD 33-250]
- Love To Love You Baby [Durium Marche Estere D. 30-240 ou Groovy DGR 8501 ou Atlantic ATL 50 198 ou Oasis OCLP 5003]
- A Love Trilogy [Durium Marche Estere D. AI 30-248 ou Groovy GR 9001 ou Oasis OCLP 5004]
- Four Seasons of Love [Durium Marche Estere D. AI 30-257 ou Groovy GR 9002 ou Casablanca NBLP 7038]
- I Remember Yesterday, [Groovy GR 9003 ou Casablanca NBLP 7056]
- “I Feel Love” [Casablanca NBD 20104]
- “Love Hangover” [Motown PR-15 or PR-16]
- Songs In The Key Of Life [Tamla T13-340C2]
- “Do What You Wanna Do” [T.K. Disco 24]
- “Superman” [T.K. Disco 37]